Some evolutionary psychologists claim that humans are good at creating superstimuli, and that many pleasure technologies are detrimental to our reproductive fitness. Most of the evolutionary psychological literature makes use of some version of Lorenz and Tinbergen’s largely embryonic conceptual framework to make sense of supernormal stimulation and bias exploitation in humans. However, the early ethological concept of “superstimulus” was intimately connected to other erstwhile core ethological notions, such as the innate releasing mechanism, sign stimuli, and the fixed action pattern, notions that nowadays have for the most part been discarded by ethologists. The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, the authors will reconnect the discussion of superstimuli in humans with more recent theoretical ethological literature on stimulus selection and supernormal stimulation. This will allow for a reconceptualization of evolutionary psychology’s formulation of (supernormal) stimulus selection in terms of domain-specificity and modularity. Second, they will argue that bias exploitation in a cultural species differs substantially from bias exploitation in non-cultural animals. They will explore several of those differences, and explicate why they put important constraints on the use of the superstimulus concept in the evolutionary social sciences.
Andreas De Block is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leuven. He studied philosophy and psychology in Leuven and Ghent, and worked as a post-doctoral researcher at Radboud University and the University of Michigan. He is the author and editor of several books on psychoanalysis, philosophy of psychiatry, and philosophy of biology. His main research interests are cultural evolution, the philosophical assumptions of the nature-nurture debate, sexual orientation, and philosophy of psychiatry. On these topics, he has published articles in, e.g., Philosophical Psychology, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, Biological Theory, and Biology and Philosophy. Bart Du Laing studied law at the University of Leuven (KUL), where he obtained his PhD in 2004. He is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) at Ghent University's Department of Legal Theory and Legal History on a project entitled "Evolutionary Approaches to Human (Cultural) Behavior and Comparative Contract Law". Apart from publishing on the intersection of contemporary evolutionary approaches to human behavior and (comparative) legal theory in publications aimed at a legal audience, he has also co-authored articles on (cultural) evolutionary theory in journals such as Philosophical Psychology and Biological Theory.